A changing gold standard: The overlooked value of associate degrees and certificates

Middle-skills pathway credentials are becoming more important to meet workforce demands in our expanding non-bachelor’s-degree economy.

These credentials—from two-year degrees to one-year certificates—result in well paying skilled technical jobs across industries ranging from manufacturing, transportation, and construction to energy, health care, and information technology. The growth of these great jobs has resulted in multiple awareness efforts, including the Center’s Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree project, to inform young people and their parents that the educational routes leading to these careers are more valuable than the stigmas and misinformation would have us believe.

According to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, certificates and associate degrees can be viable routes to economic opportunity, but they are often overlooked because of the “gold standard” that has been placed on the bachelor’s degree for the past 40 years. Before students go to college, they need to better understand the labor-market value of middle-skill credentials and the strong connection they forge between skills and jobs. Below are some of the report’s main findings.

More students are enrolled in certificate and associate’s degree programs than in bachelor’s degree programs.

While the popularity of certificates and associate degrees varies by region and by state, enrollment in these programs surpass enrollment in baccalaureate-level education in the U.S. In Minnesota, the state awards between 100-149 associate degrees per 10,000 state residents (among those aged 18-40), and 50-99 certificates per 10,000 state residents.

About 50 percent of students taking undergraduate coursework are enrolled in certificate and associate’s degree programs, and 47 percent are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs.

The link between certificate and associate’s degree programs and careers is strong.

About 94 percent of certificate programs and 57 percent of associate’s degree programs are career oriented.

The Center’s research on certificate careers and two year degrees has confirmed this link as well. Non-four-year pathways do not leave workers performing a single task at a single station for 30+ years on end without variation. Each job can be seen as the first step on a career pathway.

Certificates can pay, but it all depends on the field of study.

Certificates in engineering technologies lead to high earnings in nearly every state analyzed for this report. Workers with certificates in blue-collar fields, information technology, and legal studies have the highest earnings among certificate holders in more than half of the states. Some certificate fields of study can even lead to earnings that rival those of bachelor’s degrees in other fields.

The Center’s research on one-year certificates reveals there are many in-demand certificate careers in Minnesota that result in median lifetime earnings that are higher than those of four-year degree holders: heating and air conditioning (HVAC) installation and maintenance and electric power line installation.

Racial and ethnic minorities have higher enrollments in certificate and associate’s degree programs. 

Among certificate, associate’s degree, and bachelor’s degree seekers enrolled in college, Latino students are more concentrated in certificate and associate’s degree programs (62%) than in bachelor’s degree programs (38%). The same applies for Blacks (56% and 44%, respectively). The reverse is true for Whites, who are more concentrated in bachelor’s degree programs (53%) than in certificate or associate’s degree programs (47%).

As our future workforce becomes more and more diverse, it will important to understand who these students are so they reach their full potential and can advance in their careers. For some, that may be learning that after earning a two-year associate degree they can eventually go on to get a four-year degree in a “2 plus 2” arrangement.

While a four-year college degree is an excellent option for many young people, it’s not the only one. Young people—and their parents—should know about the alternative educational options that lead to successful careers with clear paths for advancement. Our society and policymakers need to re-emphasize the importance of  non-four-year routes and highlight the valuable contributions the corresponding careers make to our communities, our state, and our country.